195: Focus On Your People First with Will Blake

Will Blake, the owner of Vesta Foundation Solutions, a foundation repair and crawl space waterproofing company in Oklahoma City and Northwest Arkansas. We discuss about the crucial how to cultivate a great culture, the 5 Summits Framework, characteristics of good leadership, Gen Z employees’ pros and cons, and the future of the Foundation Repair industry.

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Focus On Your People First with Will Blake

Our guest is Will Blake, the owner of Vesta Foundation Solutions, a foundation repair and crawl space waterproofing company in Oklahoma City and Northwest Arkansas. Will, welcome to the show.

Thanks for having me, Steve. Huge fan of the Management Blueprint Podcast, been listening for a long time, so I’m humbled to actually be a guest on it. So thank you for that.

That’s great. So you know our flow and it’s going to be familiar to you and you can anticipate my questions. So I won’t be able to catch you off guard here, but that’s probably not that important anyway. So let’s start with your entrepreneurial journey. So what road led you to starting Vesta Foundation Solutions in the first place?

So I grew up in the mountains of North Carolina, not too far from you, Steve. But my father was a general contractor. And of course, like most sons or daughters of general contractors, I was told continuously to not join the family business, go to college, right? And the Achilles heel there was, number one, I wasn’t a very good student. So I didn’t do very well in high school or my introductory course to college, which was a good lesson in how to spend tuition money and get little in return.

But when I was 20 years old, my wife and I, well, then girlfriend, now wife, had the unexpected surprise of, hey, you’re going to have a kid. And being a 20-year-old and being hit upside the head with that level of responsibility really kind of steered me back into saying, well, I’ve got a family I have to be responsible for and I’ve got other people that rely on me. And so I did what was natural to me. I jumped back into construction, doing what I knew and what I was raised to do. So I had a business. And of course, imagine, Steve, a 20-year-old running a business, right? Obviously I aced it. Obviously not.

But I grew that business for about a year and a half and then eventually merged that company with a gentleman, an acquaintance of mine that didn’t really have a succession plan. And we were doing about $300,000 a year. And this was my introduction into quote, unquote foundation repair. Because Steve, obviously your listeners can understand, everybody just wakes up in the morning and says, man, I can’t wait to be a foundation repair contractor. Right.

It’s just not a sexy business. But we grew that business from about 300,000 to $9 million a year in revenue over the course of many years. And that was my first lesson in true leadership and humility, because to be frank, I was a 27 year old running a $9 million business, and I really was not a good leader. I didn’t understand how to run a business, even though I thought I did. And ultimately what happened there was we dissolved that partnership.

And at the time, of course, imagine being a 27-year-old, losing your first company. You think, oh, man, the world is over, right? I wish I could go back and be like, you are a dummy. You’re 27. You’ve got plenty of life left, right? But through that, obviously, I was very humbled. And my wife and I would go around and help other contractors set up systems and processes in place. And then about a year later, a good friend of ours that owned a large foundation repair company in Virginia heard we were on the market and said, hey, listen, I want you to come up and work for me.

And mind you, they were already doing about $30 million in revenue a year, fixing about 120 homes a week. And I went there as an operations manager under the VP. And he was an outstanding leader. He was a good human being, but he was also very, very smart, not only on the financial side, but just as the, what I would say, emotional intelligence of keeping a great culture and understanding his people. And I worked with him for about four years, and we grew that company upwards to about $70 million in revenue. And, boy, that was like holding a tiger by the tail.

I think as entrepreneurs, we have our kind of defining stretch moments that we think we’re capable of things, but then we actually realize we’re much more capable than we think we are. And that business really stretched us until the owner sold that company to private equity, which we were actually very happy for him and everybody in the company because honestly, it had outgrown our capacity. And we helped that team transition.

And we said, well, listen, what do you want to do? I mean, we’ve got the whole country to go see. And a good friend of mine that I developed a relationship with, one of my suppliers, had reached out to me and said, hey, there’s a few markets around the country that we’re having trouble finding the right people. We really try to find a market that they just put all their efforts into. And it’s not a franchise system, it’s just a supplier.

And Oklahoma City was on that list, and like most people around the country, probably you were thinking, what the heck is in Oklahoma City, right? But we actually ran business plans on several markets and just fell in love with this really untapped area in the middle of the country. And we moved our family sight unseen December 28, 2016 and launched our company January 4th, obviously intentionally, January 4th, 2017.

And as of this recording, we now have three offices. We’re headquartered in Oklahoma City. We have an office in Northwest Arkansas, as you mentioned, and one in Dallas. It’s a startup in Dallas, about a year and a half old, and have 82 employees and probably fix about 60 homes a week. And we’re just doing the same thing we’ve always done, just trying to have more fun doing it. So when people see our success, they think this is my first go at it, but honestly, this is my third or fourth attempt. So I’m just glad I got it. Well, I’m gonna knock on wood, Steve. I’m just glad I got it right this time. And it’s just, it’s one of those.

I hate to say it your second business is better than your first one and your third business, you basically learn most of the lessons and you can be out of the park. So one of the things that we talked about on the prequel is how culture is important in building a business. And you said that the first time around, you were not really, you know, you didn’t really understand how things work and you were not a great leader, but obviously, you learned from your lessons because you are now growing a company in three locations in six, seven years, over 80 employees. So why is culture, how is culture important and how do you run culture? How do you build a great culture?

So I think culture several years ago kind of became a buzzword. It was real kind of, it was used widely, especially with great authors like Simon Sinek writing, Start With Why and things of that nature. But, you know, when we really peel back the layers of it, as we grow an organization, the communication between the owner and the direct customer is now interrupted by all of these people.

You know, and the fact is, is the culture is the standard that is upheld in our absence. Right. So when I’m not around, you know, the culture of the company is essentially the byproduct of what I’ve taught my people. And that’s not just about systems and processes and things like that, but how we treat one another and how what are our core values that we’re driving towards achieving. And then also what it means to the families at home of our team members and employees, because no matter how hard we try, there’s never going to be 100% work-life balance.

Culture is the standard that is upheld in our absence. Share on X

Our employees are going to take their work home with them, share their stories with their spouses and family. So we just want to make sure, hey, the core culture of our company, it really starts with who Sidney and I are as human beings. And it’s not always perfect. It’s like a marriage. I’m going on 20 years of marriage. It’s a moving target, and it constantly needs attention, and it needs measured and it needs to be changed when the market and the world changes with us.

I think you and I have talked about this in the past, as we bring on new employees, they have different ways of communicating, which means we have to adapt our ways of communicating around culture and what culture is and what it means. That’s why it’s so important to us because it is the, bad pun, Steve, the foundation to what every human being experiences, both as a customer and as an employee here at Vesta.

So maybe we can say that you are a foundation repair guy in multiple ways. You’re repairing foundation of houses, but you also repair the foundation of your business approach and you actually came up with a framework that you call the five summits framework. So can you talk to that a little bit of what it means and how you apply it.

And it’s I’ve read your book, Pinnacle, Steve, so I’m like, man, I need to adapt this a little bit. But essentially, the genesis of the five summits were we grew our business in North Carolina. We obviously scaled and we ran into problems. Then we went to a larger company in Virginia. We scaled and ran into similar problems. And then when we moved to Oklahoma, we assumed, oh, we’ve got it all worked out.

Like, we know what’s around the corner. We know where the, call it, blind spots exist. But we experienced the same problems in scaling Vesta, and I help many business owners, specifically in construction. That’s kind of my sandbox that I play in. And many of them experienced the same problems, and I started to pick up on the pattern that there’s really five major areas that businesses run into problems and they have to overcome these problems, otherwise they turn around and they either they go, they scale backwards or they go out of business.

And that pattern started to make itself very visible to us, but also other business owners about three years ago. And really it comes down to the five major problems that we run into, which number one is vision, which I know you talk about a lot in Pinnacle, is where are you taking this organization? Because nobody wants to get on a ship to nowhere, right? And that’s a difficult question to ask a lot of entrepreneurs because it’s, well, what do you want?

And they typically say, well, I want to make money, right? But there’s so many different things that need to come out of where you’re going and why. And that’s the first one is most business owners do not clearly define where they’re going. And there’s some great resources around this. I know you know some of these resources of I just mentioned it. Start with why. Gino Wickman wrote a great book called Traction that outlines how to set out your vision and then make sure that that’s your North Star.

And then once you have that down, then the next summit, the climb that you have to make is processes, which processes are really the way that you get out of the way of the business because you are doing it a certain way, but you have to be able to replicate that in your business because you can’t be in 10 places at once. I like to say this is the cool thing about processes are as most of them already exist. I think a lot of us try to dream up a brand new process that’s revolutionary, but we really don’t have to get very complicated with our processes.

Processes are really the way that you get out of the way of the business. Share on X

Most of the time, a worthy competitor in a different market that you would never compete against but could share with those resources, a lot of times our vendors or suppliers already have processes because they know what it takes to install or sell that product the best. And it’s just about implementing those. And then where we find the biggest part is getting into the third summit is after you start to scale and you got the processes in place, then then all of a sudden you got to hire. Right. You got to bring people into your organization.

And I will say this as directly as possible. Contractors are not good at hiring and developing people. We’re just not. We were taught to build with our hands and just get things done and do good work and then go to the next job, right? When then we find most owners, when they start to bring people in, they hire too quickly. They hire based on urgency and not core value decisions.

And then what happens is, is quality assurance and quality control fall, cashflow gets restricted. And then because we weren’t intentional about bringing on right people that share our vision and enhance our culture, then we typically find that a business either goes out of business or they turn around and say, hey, I can’t handle this. I’m going to go back down to where I’m smaller and I’m going to focus where I can actually make better money. But they’re back to doing the work.

Right. So we talked about five summits. The first one is the vision. So there you’re going. Second is processes. So how do you create the consistency, how do you scale? And you can pick these up from suppliers sometimes. You can copy competitors. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel necessarily. Or you can just document your own best practice. And then people, you have to hire, and as you say, contracting companies are not necessarily kind of natural for building people. You’re building houses, not people, primarily. So these are visual practices people. So what are the other two summits of the five?

So as businesses get the first three summits kind of accomplished, or they climb those summits and they’re on to the next, we typically see scaling occurring where a company may go from, say, 3 million to 5 million in a year. And what really goes wrong next is the understanding of finances and the way money works in the business. And that’s the fourth summit.

We have to stop becoming the guy out there at the tool belt, and we have to start becoming the individual that understands how money works in the business. So most companies that scale and double in business in a year, they forget all of that growth is coming out of somewhere. Most of the time it’s coming out of their gross profit margin, and they don’t realize it. They typically need to change from cash to accrual accounting to have better managed books and also just having clean financials.

And if you can get through that, then the last one is how the last summit is what we call leadership and culture. And the CEO or leader of a two million dollar a year company as you know Steve is not the same person as somebody running a 20 million dollar company. And you constantly have to be enhancing and improving and self-developing not only yourself but now this massive team of individuals that are essentially your representation out there in the world through your business.

And a lot of folks forget this is that you have to continuously develop leaders in your company and then constantly rework and enhance the culture because the company is going to continue to grow in your absence now. And the culture, as I mentioned, is really a representation of you in your absence as the leader. So those are our five summons.

So the five points of vision, process, people, money or finance, and then leadership slash culture. So we already touched upon culture. So what does good leadership look like for you?

Well, for ours, specifically, I think the keystone to good leadership is communication. Because the fact is, is most leaders, I think in my younger days, I thought a great leader was just somebody that was charismatic and maybe outspoken. But through my few decades of doing this, I realized that most leaders are excellent communicators. And I think it was Steve Jobs that said simplicity is the ultimate in sophistication. And what I really like about that is how can we communicate what we need to say in a very clear and concise way.

The keystone to good leadership is communication. Share on X

And I know I just became a hypocrite, Steve, because I spent like five minutes talking about this one thing. I should have gotten it more direct. But, you know, being a really good communicator, because when you say something to a group of individuals, let’s say it’s, in our case, 80 employees, we now have 80 interpretations of what I said that could be taken and multiplied in all sorts of different ways. So communication is key. And also just respecting that people communicate in different ways, both internally and externally.

But then the next thing for leadership for us is understanding that our employees are never going to care about our business as much as we do as the owners. It’s just a matter of fact. So understanding that right away as a leadership perspective puts less focus on the employee to be a better person and reach their goals. And, of course, the byproduct is really we achieve our business goals out of it.

We share in the success in that with our team. Matthew Kelly wrote a great book called Dream Manager that we really focus heavily on to try to make sure we’re accomplishing our employees’ goals before we accomplish our own. And that’s kind of our core functions of how we look at leadership here at Vesta. And it’s always a moving target. If you ask me in another five years, I’ll go, oh man, I got that wrong. Yeah. But that’s, it’s always developing, right?

That’s a great approach. I think Jeff Bezos also talks about this idea of focusing on your employees and then take care of them. And then they will take care of the customer. So it’s, you know, put the oxygen mask on you first, which is your employees, make sure that they are happy and then they will radiate that happiness out to the customers and partners around the company. So you mentioned communication and how important it is. I was just thinking about this quote this morning in another context and I was wondering, is that Steve Jobs’ quote?

But now you’ve confirmed that it is. So talking about the ultimate sophistication, simplicity, so how do you communicate with different age groups? And, you know, I’m Gen X, although people sometimes say, OK, boomer, I guess that’s what I do. And then there is the Gen Zs coming up and then Generation Alpha or the years of Gen Z. So what do you find? You work with younger people in your business. What do you find? How do you have to communicate with these people differently? How do they communicate with each other, how is the communication evolving between the generations?

So I’m glad you said Gen X, Steve. I’m deeply rooted in the millennial generation, so I fully expect my trophy after our podcast today, the participation trophy. But let’s rewind that a little bit. So you and I, we make the jokes like Boomer, and I made the joke about trophies. First and foremost, we need to peel back the layers of what the generations are. And a lot of times it gets shrouded in a lot of stereotypes that you see on social media and pop culture and things like that. But when you really break it down and to be clear, 60 plus percent of our business is Gen Z right now.

And there’s a lot of negative connotation from, you know, the adjacent generation downward about the work ethic and the way they communicate and all of that. So there’s always, you know, this concept of, well, you’re a Gen X, Steve, so you probably know what a collect call is and what a floppy disk is. If I went to my administrative team down in my office today and asked those questions, they would have no clue what that is.

But that’s the reality is, is they were not raised to know what those were. Even though we made the joke of the floppy disk, like the save icon on your computer is literally a floppy disk. So once you peel that back, it’s like, oh, okay, we just – we are saying the same thing, but we’re communicating on different levels. So let’s take, for example, being very aware of what those generational differences are. Let’s take a look at Gen Z. So Gen Z ironically came they were raised through post 08 09 recession economies.

So many of our Gen Z’s have higher credit scores and more savings than most of our millennials. People don’t realize that. And they actually have a great work ethic. But they communicate heavily through digital devices rather than face to face like we’re doing here. So once you understand that reality, it’s like, oh, okay, great. Well, how do we communicate better? For example, performance reviews or check-ins or company updates.

Well, we need to make sure that we’re communicating them, with them, through an interface in a device that they’re used to communicating with. When we may be working with, say, a Boomer or a Gen X, and it’s like, no, we need to make sure that this isn’t writing in face to face. Nothing wrong with that. It’s just we’re recognizing the ways and strengths that they communicate in to get the maximum result. And we did a survey a few years ago.

Understanding the psychology around these different age groups and generations is important. Share on X

We asked everyone in the company what – when there’s important updates for the company, what are the areas that you would like to be communicated in? And it was a wide mix of text message to face to face to email to text messages. And it was everywhere. So and there was no one defining area or media medium that we needed to communicate with. So we find that’s just a byproduct of our people. So so we identify that and we are very intentional about it.

You mentioned about Gen Alpha, the oldest Gen Alpha currently is about 13. And this generation coming up, and this is one of my new passions is just understanding the psychology around these different age groups and generations is Gen Alpha was the first generation that came into a fully digital world. They had a touchable device typically in front of them when they were given their pacifier.

So we’ve probably seen this where a child goes up to a television and they try to swipe the television. That’s just because that’s how they have always assumed technology works. But when we, and I know this through a nonprofit I have called Construct My Future, where we educate seventh and eighth graders on careers in the trades, they are highly kinesthetically driven.

And what I mean by that is, is Gen Alpha, they want to be engaged through kinesthetic activities, on-the-job things, because they’ve been helicopter parented through digital devices to where they’re more stimulated by getting hands-on kinesthetic activities. Good example would be we did welding this last year, and literally in the activity in our camp, by taking pieces of metal, cutting them, and using a welder to bond two pieces of steel together was the biggest eye-opening thing that these children have ever done.

And they completely got away and ignored the VR headset that was across the room, because they’re used to that. They know what VR is. Now we’ve got a generation coming up that genuinely wants to be led and be involved and getting into the workforce, and it’s just an exciting thing to see. I choose to look at it in an optimistic light rather than a negative one.

So it’s great. So the new generation, the alphas who grew up with a headset, with a VR headset, they actually want real things. So they’re kind of sick of all the virtual stuff that is kind of by default there anyway, and they want to try real things on the world. So maybe we are coming full circle with this, right? We thought that digital is the way to go, and now we’re coming back to what we thought was the most important to begin with. That’s pretty cool.

So, tell me a little bit before we wrap up, you’re in a business which few people know a lot about, foundation repair, which is kind of, in my mind, it’s one of those trades that are really critical, but less recognized as HVAC, everyone knows about HVAC, haploid electrical, polying, but foundation repair is also equally important. And you know, you guys do some of the work that people really don’t even like to think about, like going into crawl spaces and fixing things up. And we did a project here in our house, and it’s wonderful, the air quality has gone up, and you know, our allergies have gone away. It’s really important work. So tell me a little bit about where this industry is going and is there technologies that can be applied and what are the methods? Where is the future of foundation repair and like crawl space insulation and stuff like that?

So it’s wild to think because I never intended to be a foundation repair contractor, which is where I landed. It is something that is a necessity for homeowners and businesses alike because when we can’t, you know, sustainably hold together our structures, then obviously that leads to other both visual and mechanical problems, right? And it’s kind of neat because when we’re fixing homes, you know, number one thing is construction is typically a pretty lagging industry for innovation. I think that most construction trades are less likely to change sooner rather than later.

Yeah, we have seen a big shift in technology with foundation repairs, specifically, you know, we provide concrete lifting, which we use expanding structural foam that we inject under concrete. It lifts up. We’re even finding now ways where a home can be monitored for movement to justify whether or not it is in the need of repair.

This is technology that’s come in the last year and a half, which is really exciting because we don’t want to repair a home if it’s not needed. But now technology has gotten to the point now where we can physically monitor a home from miles away through a server to see if it’s even in the need of foundation repair. And this was really important last year in the southern part of the United States. We went through an extreme drought, so soils were shrinking and houses were moving, but we didn’t know if it was a variable of the extreme change.

Foundation repair is a necessity for homeowners and businesses alike because when we can't sustainably hold together our structures, it leads to other problems. Share on X

But then also on the customer facing side, just the tools that are at our disposal to be able to execute and communicate with customers, so much so that what used to be just scribbling on the back of a business card years ago, an estimate gets handed over. Now, customers have portals that they log into to ask questions. They can actually see the engineering behind the repair because it’s all built off of data from housing statistics fed through a lot of engineering firms.

So to be able to calculate the repair like an engineer, then have that stamped by an engineer has sped up the process because our world in foundation repair is very driven by mechanical and structural engineering principle. So to be able to have that now built into programs and softwares has been an excellent step forward in quality assurance and quality control. And I fully expect that the future will be a homeowner will go into a website and put the properties of their house into it, and go ahead and create the engineering principles for design repair before we even have to set foot on their property to verify that repair. And I would see that probably coming. Yeah, in five years, it’ll be there.

I can probably even check whether my home needs furniture repair. I can watch your website and see if it’s moving or not. That’s pretty amazing. So, Will, if someone would like to learn more about what you guys do and maybe they want to know whether their home is in need of furniture repair or, I mean, the big thing I recommend everyone to do is waterproofing their crawlspace and making sure that the air is high quality in the house. It makes a huge difference. I just read a book called Breath, which talks about how breathing is important and to breathe the proper air and how many sicknesses are originated with bad breathing. So, definitely it’s a big topic. So, if anyone would like to learn more about that and what you guys do for homeowners, where should they go and how can they connect to you?

Well, they can obviously go to our website, which phonetically, just to be clear, Steve, Vesta was horrible branding. Phonetically, it’s a little challenging. The V sometimes sounds like an F or a B. But Vesta is actually the Roman goddess that protects home and earth. So that’s why we named our company Vesta. And Vesta Foundation Solutions is our website. blogs and articles in there that would kind of give an idea of how we would repair it, but there’s plenty of associations around the country that qualify and certify different companies that may be outside of my area.

One that comes to mind is BHA or the Basement Health Association and AGC, which is a contractors organization that puts out information and data about that. Those are some of the resources. If somebody, maybe in my industry or not, that has questions about our hiring practices and our culture practices, many of them reach me just through my personal website, which is williamwalkerblake.com.

And that’s where a lot of folks learn about not only VESTA but our software company, which is built around generational communication and recruiting practices for construction, but also our nonprofit, which is Construct My Future, that helps educate middle schoolers in just the career opportunities that are in the trades. And all of that is accessible through williamwalkerblake.com.

Okay, well, do check out williamwalkerblake.com for all these great resources. Will, thanks for coming and sharing your knowledge. And for those of you listening, if you’d like to get the short summary of some of these frameworks we discussed, you can go on the Steve Preda Business Growth LinkedIn page and then you can watch videos we post several times a day. We post about frameworks, videos about it, and you can learn more and kind of get through any of the episodes or just follow our YouTube channel. So thanks, Will, for coming, and I hope to stay in touch.

Thank you, Steve. I’m very glad that you had me on today, and look forward to being a continuous fan of your podcasts and your products.


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